Emigre Composers/Ensemble Modern, Wigmore Hall, London

By Bayan Northcott
Saturday 23 November 2013 05:18
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Hard on the heels of Daniel Snowman's recent Radio 3 evening exploring the impact on British culture of the artists, thinkers and performers driven hither by Fascism in the 1930s, the Wigmore Hall has been hosting a seminar and a pair of concerts entitled Continental Britons: the émigré composers.

In the event, the nine figures selected in this promotion by the Jewish International Forum for Suppressed Music all proved to hail from Central Europe, while the Spanish-born émigré composer Roberto Gerhard, surely the biggest talent of all, was passed over. None the less, the programmes conveyed this listener back to the BBC Third Programme culture of his schooldays in the 1950s, when such names as Seiber, Wellesz and Reizenstein seemed to pop up often.

But then, Budapest-born Matyas Seiber (1905-60), in particular, cut quite a figure in those days as a composer whose range extended from a kind of post-Bartokian serialism to jazz and light music; and as a hugely influential teacher and animateur. And, out of two unavoidably long and indigestible programmes, it was a pair of Seiber items that retained the most distinctive sound: his late Sonata for violin and piano (1960), finely played by Nurit Pacht and Konstantin Lifschitz; and his classic wind quintet Permutazione a cinque (1958) given by Ensemble Modern – dry, cryptic structures, no doubt, but with a real intensity.

The other figure to come up well was Viennese-born Hans Gál (1890-1987) – more surprisingly, perhaps, since his post-Strauss, post-Reger idiom scarcely seemed to change through all his later decades in Edinburgh, but whose Serenade (1935) for clarinet, violin and cello proved to handle a tricky medium with exquisite skill. By contrast, not all Ensemble Modern's energy could really reclaim the coarse, octave-doubled textures of the Octet (1948) by that first-generation Schoenberg pupil and eminent Byzantine-music scholar Egon Wellesz (1885-1974), while the early Wind Quintet (1934) by Franz Reizenstein sounded too influenced by his teacher Hindemith to convey real individuality.

Nor did the three selections by the late Berthold Goldschmidt (1903-96) – including a squarish late Fantasy (1991) for oboe, cello and harp – do much to substantiate the myth latterly promoted by his partisans, that he was a major talent viciously done down by the English avant-garde. Yet there was unexpected charm in an Intermezzo (1937) for violin and piano by that doyen of choral directors Peter Gellhorn (b 1912) and real anguish in the chromatic writhings of Coventry: A meditation for String Quartet (1941) by Vilem Tausky (b 1910). It was touching indeed to behold these two venerable survivors taking their bows.

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